Set in 18th century Georgian London, Harlots is described as a powerful family drama offering a new take on the city’s most valuable commercial activity – sex.
The series follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and her daughters as she struggles to reconcile her roles as mother and brothel owner in the face of an attack from Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a rival madam with a ruthless streak.
Season two, set to air this year, sees Liv Tyler join the cast as Lady Fitz while Margaret’s daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), places herself in Quigley’s home and their toxic and deep-set rivalry is taken to a dangerous new level.
In this DQTV interview, Brown Findlay and executive producer Alison Carpenter recall the making of season one and preview the twists and turns that await viewers in season two of the series, which is entirely written, produced and directed by women.
They also discuss how authenticity was placed at the heart of the production, and give their views on the sexual harassment scandal currently sweeping through the film and television business.
Harlots is produced by Monumental Television for Hulu and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Co-creators Moira Buffini and Alison Newman reveal the journey they took to bring Harlots, a period drama about rival brothel owners, to the small screen.
An 18th century mansion on the outskirts of London proved to be the perfect location for a period drama that presents a new take on what Rudyard Kipling described as the world’s oldest trade – prostitution.
But Harlots, which was co-commissioned by UK broadcaster ITV and US streamer Hulu, is more than just a sex saga.
Set against the backdrop of 18th century Georgian London, the eight-part series follows Margaret Wells and her daughters as she juggles her roles as mother and brothel owner. When her business comes under attack from Lydia Quigley, a rival madam, she decides to fight back, even if it means putting her family at risk.
Harlots is based on an idea from head writer Moira Buffini and Alison Newman. Distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, the drama is the first commission for Monumental Pictures.
“One of the things we always wanted to do with Harlots was to tell the story of these women from their point of view – it’s a story of survival,” Newman explains. “We often called it ‘misery porn,’ and while these women’s stories are awful, horrendous and difficult, especially to a modern audience, they did happen and we just wanted to truthfully tell the stories of the world.”
Buffini adds: “We have honoured their tenacity and courage and ability to survive, rather than dwelling on the ‘poor them’ aspect.”
Harlots had been in development, in some shape or form, for four years before finally getting the greenlight. Part of the delay was down to Buffini and Newman’s insistence on making the show they wanted to make and finding partners to support that vision. With US SVoD platform Hulu and ITV, they finally found the freedom to bring their ideas to life.
The pair first worked together on 2001 play Loveplay. Written by Buffini and starring actor Newman, it centred on transactions between men and women across the centuries. From that starting point, they both had ideas of how to take this story forward.
“One of the things about Harlots, which is why we love it so much, is that really this is one profession that never changes,” Buffini says. “Yes, we’re writing about Georgians but we’re absolutely writing about the modern world as well. That feeling really comes through.”
Their aim was to create a drama with a large female cast, telling a story from the female gaze. “Obviously this world is perfect for that,” Newman notes, “and we wanted a cast peopled with characters of all different backgrounds and ages and we’ve managed to do that, which is great.
“Once we really started looking into the world, we did a vast amount of research and discovered that an awful lot of Georgian London was built on vice. These women had disposable income so they put it into property and bricks. At that point, London was the capital of the world; it was a boom town, expanding massively, and the women who were successful in this trade were businesswomen.
“There is nudity,” she adds, “but if people are expecting some kind of cheap thrill, they’re not going to get it watching Harlots. Whatever you think it is, it probably isn’t that thing. If you think you’re going to get a political feminist diatribe, it isn’t that either.”
The main story – with rival brothel owners at its centre – evolved over much time and discussion, they admit, as the pair began storylining ideas before bringing fellow writers Cat Jones, Jane English and Debbie O’Malley, exec producer Alison Carpenter and script editor Katie Kelly into a writers room to thrash out individual episodes.
“I’ve never run a writers room before or even been in one, and it was brilliant,” says Buffini, who is best known for films such as Tamara Drew, Jane Eyre and Byzantium. “We just had such a laugh. It was really tricky, difficult and hard work but it was always a very creative atmosphere. Together, we worked from big sketches to tiny detail and we worked out all our storylines in that room. Then each individual writer went away and wrote their episodes and we all came together again to get them to the screen. What you realise about television when you start on the path of it is that it just becomes a bigger and bigger collaboration as you walk the path.”
Collaboration was a key part of the process for Newman and Buffini, with the latter admitting she is “not the kind of writer that is an omnipotent being.” In the early stages as the writing process continued apace, lead director Coky Giedroic did the bulk of casting. But as filming wore on, the creators found themselves becoming more involved in production, and say they found overseeing the editing process particularly rewarding.
Newman adds: “While we might not have been on set because we were storylining in the writers room, we signed off on everything from casting to design. And now that the episodes are in the edit, to be involved in shaping them is brilliant. It’s fascinating and really enjoyable.”
As befitting the flamboyant Georgians, Harlots was destined to be a big, noisy and colourful affair. “It’s not often you see the finished show and think, ‘That’s it,’ but with Harlots, I do think that,” Buffini reveals. “We’re both so proud of it. It’s the show we talked about years ago, but it’s better.”
The cast is led by Samantha Morton (pictured top), who stars as Margaret Wells opposite Lesley Manville (River) as Lydia Quigley. Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) plays Charlotte, Margaret’s eldest daughter and the city’s most coveted courtesan who is coming to terms with her position in society and her family.
Buffini says the cast were “an absolute pleasure and a privilege to write for,” adding that each of them brought something surprising and different to their character.
“Lydia could have been such a villain but that’s not how Lesley played her,” she continues. “She’s very warm and funny, quite maternal and a horrendous villain. And what Samantha has brought to Margaret in such a subtle way is this sense of relationship between damage and resilience. It’s so beautifully observed and a real credit to Sam. Jess, she’s just absolutely amazing.
“You don’t want to prescribe too much to an actor, especially actors of that calibre, because if you have written the script well enough, it will just be there in the action and in the dialogue. I like very sparse scripts that aren’t full of character description. Usually I allow myself one sentence to describe each character and then you leave it to the actors to find. That’s where a writer can really overstep the mark.”
By the end of season one, which launched on both ITV Encore and Hulu in March, every character has their story resolved, a move designed to ensure viewers aren’t left standing on a cliff edge awaiting a potential second season.
“Statistically there are not enough female stories by female creatives, but we forgot how unusual Harlots is,” Buffini adds, citing all-female directing and writing teams and its female-led cast. “We just got used to it being women producers, women directors, this big cast of actresses, but not forgetting our wonderful men.
“There are so many untold women’s stories. When you think of how many father-son stories you’ve seen and compare that with the number of mother-daughter stories you’ve seen, there just aren’t as many. There are lots of stories about brothers but there aren’t as many about sisters. As a dramatist, it’s amazing because it’s all uncharted territory and you can do anything. There’s so much more that is new and exciting about being in this world where a woman drives story.”
Period dramas are never far from our screens, but they currently appear to be more popular and diverse than ever. Stephen Arnell examines the current trend for costume series.
Drama series based on historical events and set in eras gone by have always been popular, more so than ever in the current ‘golden age’ of television, despite the obvious expense involved in terms of scale, design, costuming and on- and off-screen talent.
The American West has long yielded rich pickings for both period series, most recently with Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2011-16), and those with a more contemporary setting, including Longmire (A+E/Netflix, 2012-present) the much-admired Justified (FX, 2010-15), and the western/sci-fi hybrid Westworld (HBO, 2016, pictured above).
Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-16) should also qualify as part of the genre, as, notwithstanding its present-day Amish Pennsylvania backdrop, the show possesses a narrative that harks back to the ‘psychological’ westerns of the 1950s, including Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Davies, 1957), Warlock (Edward Dmytryk, 1959) and Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort One-Eyed Jacks (1960).
Last year the UK’s ITV attempted to inject western DNA into 1870s Yorkshire with the viaduct-building drama Jericho, but poor ratings saw it fail to gain a second season.
The granddaddy of the western TV series since the 1990s is, of course, HBO’s Deadwood (2004-06), which despite being cancelled in season three retains a huge affection among the cognoscenti, enough perhaps for the mooted one- or two-part TV movie conclusion to the show to finally be given the nod.
As of August 2016, Deadwood creator David Milch was reported to be working on a script that aims to bring some sense of closure to the show.
The contemporary strain of western will see a new entrant into the field this year with Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star, a revenge thriller located in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, starring the always-busy Tim Roth (Rillington Place, The Hateful Eight) as a former London Met detective now plying his trade as a law officer in the previously sleepy but now crime-ridden town of Little Big Bear.
Co-stars include Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who most recently graced our screens in SundanceTV’s underrated James Purefoy/Michael K Smith crime drama Hap & Leonard.
After the ratings failure of The Young Pope in the UK, Sky Atlantic must be hoping that Tin Star can stake a larger claim for the potential audience, with a narrative that appears more immediately appealing than what some felt were the arthouse affectations and longueurs of the Jude Law starrer.
Another area that appears popular is the ‘pre-western,’ generally taken to be the New World in North America before the Civil War (1861-1865).
The success of 2015’s endurance epic The Revenant may have given some inspiration for new dramas to explore the times before the ‘Classic American West’ period of 1865-1900, set as it was in the ‘unorganised territory’ of the 1820s.
Two upcoming shows also set in the years preceding the Wild West include Sky1’s Jamestown and Netflix’s appropriately named Frontier.
At first glance, Jamestown, located in the North America of 1619 among the first English settlers, owes something to some relatively recent dramas, including Terence Malick’s film A New World (2005), Peter Flannery’s New Worlds (Channel 4, 2014) and Jimmy McGovern’s Banished (BBC2, 2015).
Strong similarities also appear noticeable between Banished (based in a New South Wales penal colony of 1788) and Jamestown, in the narrative hook of having both the predominately male inhabitants of the two communities learning to deal with an influx of women into their lives.
The recent teaser trailer released for Jamestown suggests creator Bill Gallagher (The Paradise, Lark Rise to Candleford) will be a taking a slightly less gritty approach than that adopted for Banished.
As for the Jacobean setting of the show, UK producers have a mixed record with dramatic depictions of the Stuart era, with successes including Charles II: The Power & The Passion (BBC1, 2003), Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (BBC2, 2004) and The Devil’s Whore (C4, 2008).
But less popular were the aforementioned New Worlds (C4, 2014) – a sequel to The Devil’s Whore set in 1680s colonial Massachusetts (61 years on from Jamestown’s Virginia) – and ITV’s The Great Fire (2014), which to many critics was more of a damp squib than a raging inferno.
Debuting in the UK on Netflix later this month after a Discovery Canada transmission (incidentally that network’s first scripted commission) in November and December last yaer, Frontier stars Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Red Road) in an adventure drama centred on the late 18th century North American fur trade.
Anyone expecting a gruelling Revenant-style experience may be disappointed, as the trailer gives the impression of a fairly uncomplicated period action-adventure, a few shades less complex than, say, Black Sails (returning to Starz for its fourth and final season this month).
The Revenant star Tom Hardy’s eagerly anticipated period drama Taboo made its January 7 debut in an unusual Saturday peaktime slot for BBC1, unusual in that light entertainment and other less-demanding fare tends to dominate the evening.
BBC1 chief Charlotte Moore will be hoping the gamble pays off and viewers stick around for something more full-blooded than they’re used to on the channel at that time.
And on the evidence of the overnight ratings for Taboo’s debut (4.8 million viewers and a 22.9% audience share), there is certainly some justification for its scheduling, which was fortunate in going against weak opposition. The performance of subsequent episodes will be the real test.
From the evidence of the trailer and to the likely pleasure of his legions of fans, Hardy seems to be in his default pyscho/masochist mode in the show, which will be familiar to viewers from his previous work in The Revenant, Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises and Peaky Blinders, the latter produced by Taboo co-creator Steven Knight.
In contrast to Frontier, where the villains are the Hudson Bay Company, the corporate bad guys in Taboo are the 1814 iteration of the East India Company.
Other interesting period dramas coming up in 2017 include season two of the Sean Bean starrer The Frankenstein Chronicles (ITV Encore), which may help assuage some pangs for the loss of Penny Dreadful, and the same channel’s Harlots, with Samantha Morton (Rillington Place) as a brothel keeper in Georgian London, set a few years earlier but in the same locale as Bean’s show.
Away from the grime and fog of London, fans of costumed spectacle can also look forward to BBC2 epic Troy: Fall of a City; the Roman drama Britannia (Sky1); Les Misérables (BBC1); season two of The Last Kingdom (BBC2); the final season of Reign (The CW); The White Princess, the belated follow-up to The White Queen (Starz); Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age (NBC); The Alienist (TNT); and Ridley Scott’s The Terror (AMC).
The BBC last week renewed its commitment to Steven Knight’s acclaimed 1920s gangster series Peaky Blinders with a two-season order.
But that was actually just one of a number of scripted announcements from the UK public broadcaster. There was also a renewal for The A Word, based on an Israeli format from Keshet, and a raft of new series and single drama announcements.
The most high profile of the new productions is Us, an adaptation of David Nicholls’ most recent novel of the same name. The book will be adapted by Nick Payne and produced by Drama Republic.
As for the single dramas, Tony Jordan is writing a show about Barbara Windsor, the Cockney actress who came to fame in the Carry On films and then became a regular fixture on EastEnders. Entitled Babs, the drama will be produced by BBC Studios in association with Red Planet Pictures.
Windsor said: “Although it’s been spoken about in the past to do my life story, it wasn’t until two years ago, when I was approached by the brilliant writer Tony Jordan and the BBC, that I knew this was the right time, and undoubtedly the only person I felt knew me well enough to tell my story. Tony knows the real me and what makes me tick, and I was particularly taken by the way he wants to tell my tale, which is not in the way people will expect. Tony certainly has captured the moments of my life that have made me who I am today. I am honoured and excited that Tony and the BBC have commissioned this.”
Jordan added: “The opportunity to tell the story of the amazing Barbara Windsor was too good to miss. I think people will be surprised there’s a lot more to her than just the Carry On Films and EastEnders. She was starring in movies and was a star of the theatre long before any of those things came along. In the Sixties, she was nominated for a Bafta for her work in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing, and a Tony award after appearing on Broadway. There’s a reason that, as a nation, we’ve all taken Barbara to our hearts. I think it is because she’s always been one of us, never forgetting where she came from – that combination of someone in the business with the highest level of professionalism, but without the airs and graces to go with it. She’s a national treasure and one of the most remarkable women I’ve met.”
For BBC2, there will be an adaptation of Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir The Boy with the Topknot, produced by Parti Productions and Kudos. Set in Wolverhampton, the series tells the humorous, touching and emotional story of a second-generation Indian growing up in Britain, exploring how he juggles his family, love life and career.
Sanghera commented: “I’m delighted that The Boy with the Topknot is being adapted for screen. Delighted and a little trepidatious. The latter because the book is a personal exposition of my childhood and family, and delighted because it’s a story I want people to know about and understand. I feel confident the BBC and Parti, along with Kudos, will handle the themes explored in the book with great warmth and sensitivity, because ultimately my family’s story is one of hope.”
Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s acting director of TV, said: “Following BBC Drama’s tremendous start to the year, it is clear audiences are looking for greater ambition and high quality. So I’m announcing a mix of contemporary, provocative pieces and surprising stories, with three new titles and two returning series.”
On the streaming front, Amazon is set to launch two new pilots on June 17. The first, which has been discussed since late last year, is The Last Tycoon, based on F Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel. Starring Matt Bomer, the show will be available in multiple markets including the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan (it was previously a movie starring Robert De Niro in 1976). The other new pilot is The Interestings, based on the book by Meg Wolitzer. This one stars Lauren Ambrose and tells the story of a group of summer-camp friends over the course of their lives.
Hulu, meanwhile, has teamed up with ITV in the UK on a new series called Harlots, which is set in the world of the 18th century London sex trade. The eight-parter, produced by Monumental Pictures, will air on ITV Encore in the UK and stars Samantha Morton as a woman struggling to reconcile her roles as a mother and a brothel owner.
Harlots is written by Moira Buffini, based on an original idea by her and Alison Newman. “In 1760s London, there were brothels on every corner run by women who were both enterprising and tenacious,” said Monumental co-founder Alison Owen. “History has largely ignored them, but their stories are outrageous, brutal, humorous and real.”
The show is the latest in a line of originations involving ITV Encore, others including The Frankenstein Chronicles, Midwinter of the Spirit and Houdini & Doyle. The show will be distributed outside the US and UK by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.
Other streaming news this week included the announcement that the European Commission may impose a 20% local-content quota on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. The move is aimed at preserving cultural diversity and supporting European production. On the face of it, this is good news for European producers, though it has the potential to increase the streamers’ content costs.
Netflix, which has recently started investing in original European content, is unhappy about the move, saying it would distort the streaming market and adversely impact on its personalised recommendation service. It added: “Rigid numerical quotas risk suffocating the market for on-demand audiovisual services. An obligation to carry content to meet a numerical quota may cause new players to struggle to achieve a sustainable business model. The focus should be on incentivising the production of European content and not imposing quotas.”
In Asia, Fox Networks Group Asia has signed a deal with Linmon Pictures to broadcast Chinese romantic drama series To Be a Better Man to viewers across the region. The show will air on general entertainment service Star Chinese Channel the same day as in China.
The 42-part series follows the story of a tough Chinese chef working at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the US. After his best friend is killed in a car accident, he returns to China with his remains and gets embroiled in various problems. To Be a Better Man was written by Li Xiao and directed by Zhang Xiao Bo.
Finally, there was more bad news this week for US movie spin-off projects. After Rush Hour and Damien were shut down last week, Limitless has become the latest casualty. This CBS show, spun off from the Bradley Cooper movie of the same name, started well but faded badly in the second half of its run.
Next autumn in the US will see the launch of new spin-offs from Training Day, Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, Time After Time and Frequency. Presumably if this batch fares as badly as the class of 2015/2016 then the networks will need to have a rethink.